Prisoners Escape the Competition
By John Hamann
September 22, 2013
While Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Warner Bros. will be quite pleased with the success of their new film Prisoners this weekend, while the flop Battle of the Year keeps balance with the force. The second weekend holds for Insidious Chapter 2 and The Family were also nothing to write home about, as the overall box office holds steady when compared to the same weekend last year.
With the very wide release of Prisoners this weekend, the new drab thriller starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaall, the almost six-month long Oscar season opens for business. Think it’s too early? In 2011, Moneyball came out this weekend, and in 2010, The Town was also released over this late-September frame (I am not sure why The Hollywood Reporter keeps saying that this is Argo’s release pattern – the Oscar winner came out in mid-October). This weekend we get Prisoners to kick it off; next weekend we get Don John and Ron Howard’s Rush. In the weekends that follow, movies like Gravity and Captain Phillips will be released, and the list goes on.
It isn’t until the pre-Thanksgiving weekend of November 22nd when we get a break from a highfalutin movie, when Hollywood releases Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Vince Vaughn’s Delivery Man, but a previously limited release like Alexander Payne’s Nebraska or Dallas Buyers Club could expand in that frame. Last year, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master came out over an earlier mid-September weekend and was too early, as that movie peaked and was out of the minds of nominators (or the Scientologists made it go away, who knows). With Warner Bros. releasing Prisoners this weekend, they have to hope for a long run against some serious competition looming ahead.
The good news is that Prisoners started its run with a bang. The Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) release earned a powerful $21.4 million, more than expected for a tough-to-watch thriller (children in peril) that carries an R rating and 146 minute run time (like Mystic River). Warner Bros. certainly has faith in Prisoners, as they released it to a gargantuan 3,260 theaters. Despite the two A-listers above the title, Prisoners is not a blockbuster. It appears to be a dark, downbeat, revenge thriller that asks “How far would you go to protect your child?” The answers to that question can lead to some pretty dark places, so good for Warner Bros. in finding a hook to bring in audiences. Besides Jackman and Gyllenhaal, Prisoners also has a top notch supporting cast that includes Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Maria Bello, and Viola Davis. These names say quality, and audiences came out. Reviews were solid but not spectacular at 79%, and the Cinemascore came in at a B+.
Marketing also played a big role in the success of Prisoners. Warner Bros. launched the film at the Telluride Film Festival, and then showed it again at the Toronto Film Festival, where it made a splash. Because of these two festival showings, the studio was able to turn that buzz into ticket sales. Warner Bros. followed up those successful screenings with a very strong marketing push, and had Jackman and Gyllenhaal hit the talk show circuits hard. The benefit is in this opening weekend, as Prisoners needed a decent-sized opening so that it could remain in relevance for as long as possible. Award consideration notwithstanding, Prisoners is also going to be a decent sized hit compared to budget. This one cost only $46 million to make, and should earn a minimum of $60 million stateside. It should also improve on that amount overseas, as Jackman is a big worldwide draw.